How to Find Meaning and Money in Your Work
I left Yale during the fall semester of my junior year fully intending to come back. Seven years later, even though I was technically still “on leave,” I arrived at my 5-year college reunion as a party crasher. But I didn’t feel sheepish coming back. I was just excited to have a good time with some old friends. I was pained to discover just how miserable many of them were. Many of my classmates had defaulted to law school, some were living at home. A few people had cleared the high bar to get low-level jobs in the Obama administration, and they were deeply frustrated at how powerless they felt in such powerful positions.
I’d heard of the “quarterlife crisis,” but what was going on with these people seemed like a more permanent problem. My friends had had all this crazy ambition and talent in college, this freewheeling ability to invent and imagine. But it seemed like they hadn’t found anywhere to use it, and so for most of them, it was as if they had spent their life building and learning to fly a plane and, now that they were in the air, they didn’t quite now where to land.
According to the International Labor Organization, as of 2010, 211 million people around the world were officially out of work. When we factor in the underemployed and those who have given up looking for a job, the number climbs much higher. In the U.S., only 54 percent of 18-24 year-olds have a job. And if there isn’t a radical shift in the direction of our economy, there will be no relief: According to some estimates, in the next 10 years, only 300 million new jobs will appear to greet the billion young people entering the workforce all around the world.
In this desperate landscape, millions of us are resigning ourselves to work that hurts us, hurts others, and damages the planet. We’re wasting our greatest assets. We have a deep, dim sense there’s something else we’re meant for, but we don’t know exactly where the opportunities are or how to access them.
Figuring out what to do with your life isn’t just about self-examination—it’s about examination of the world you live in. Theologian Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “Your vocation is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” It takes a conscious act of imagining beyond what you see, connecting what you read and what you understand about the world to the actual life you lead.
We need to genuinely believe that things can change, that what once seemed impossible is now within reach. Arriving at that perspective is largely a matter of seeking and claiming our options, from the tiniest task-related choice, to the sweeping global choices we make as a culture. Do we really have to trade our time for money for something we don’t believe? Do we have to settle for being unhappy at work just because we have the pressure of bills to pay?
There’s another path—one that doesn’t always impart a specific job title, where meaning can become a method to achieve financial stability, where our instinctive emotional response to the injustices in our world lay the foundation for a long-term career. In analyzing the stories of people who have successfully re-directed their lives (we call them Rebuilders), Dev Aujla and I identified four stages their paths share in common:
Stage 1: The Wilderness
The first stage of every path to Making Good is recognizing and acknowledging a problem. In our hundreds of interviews with people sorting through the complex emotions this stage brings up, self-doubt was one of the most significant barriers to moving forward. They had identified a problem (or 20), but they just weren’t sure what they could do about it, where they could start. It was a combination stemming from a lack of direction and that feeling of being stuck.
It’s tempting to cling to our barriers and obstacles when we feel like giving up. There’s a distinct comfort in victimhood—you don’t have to risk anything, people extend you sympathy, and you get to feel the private satisfaction of being right when someone does you wrong. It’s like shutting off the alarm on a cold morning and drifting back to sleep. Except all our options shut down. We surrender our power. Some of our excitement, our spark, our capacity to do something meaningful in our short time on earth slips away.
We don’t control the broader economy, and we often don’t control the facts of our lives, but we can always control our response to them. That response is where our power lies, and to leverage it, we need to be conscious of our perspective. Our perspective on the world has immense power over our state of mind, just as the media’s perspective has a profound impact on society. Both are creations of our mind, and the gap between how we see ourselves today and how we want to see ourselves is the path we need to travel to build a meaningful career.
The path that Rebuilders are on is a nonlinear track that introduces career freedom, variety, and opportunity custom-cut to your abilities. On the mapless road, each episode offers new skills, challenges, and contacts that will contain a clue to the next episode.
We can rarely feel the connection of one moment to another while we’re living it, but with a little perspective, we come to see the inspiration and causation that propel us forward. The truth is you don’t begin your career at one particular time. Everything that you have done to get to this point—what you have learned, the people you have met, your time off, your work experience—has brought you here. Even people in the most traditional fields will credit their success to unplanned turns, to ideas that surprised them. You have to trust that doing good work and doing it earnestly will carry you from one sustaining project to the next, that just because there’s no corporate ladder to ascend doesn’t mean there’s no future work for you. The skills and experiences you pick up along the way only make you more prepared for the next challenge you’ll face, and the path that evolves to carry you through will indeed be a path—a nonlinear career path. It’s about the constantly evolving now.
Stage 2: Finding Your Special Powers
Magazine profiles of the most creative, the most powerful, the most up-and-coming movers and shakers can give us the impression that life just feels different for really successful people. Sometimes what we read about them seems to suggest that they’ve always had a clear path, one step after another, all stemming from some grand epiphany where they felt chosen for their work. It was as if they were clueless and then one morning they had this experience and, boom, there it was, their life’s purpose clear as daylight, driving them straight toward the magazine on the kitchen table.
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Thinking this way can make us feel like if we haven’t been discovered, then we probably aren’t worthy of great things. But when you talk to people who have achieved a level of success, you find out they, too, are caught up in that long, unfolding process of figuring out who they are, what they know and don’t know, and how to get paid. The truth is that neat epiphanies rarely occur.
The path to success isn’t as clear-cut as it may sound in the magazines. When a story is written about what you’re working on one day, it will be abbreviated, summarized, and centered around a point from where it all began—even though your work will be a much more gradual process.
The second stage is about finding your edge, the special power that we all possess. We start the search by looking back at the experiences that have gotten us here today. By looking back, you can begin to uncover a story, your story, and find out that you actually do have a unique edge, in spite of a nagging insecurity about not being good enough, not being ready enough. But what we need to understand is that in spite of that feeling, we are already in the middle of the work that we need to do. We are already living our “real” lives.
We have been making choices for our whole lives— whether we are aware of it or not. In fact, all of the choices that you have made up until this point have brought you to this point. You aren’t at the beginning—you are already in the middle. You are the perfect person to make the next move. If you are waiting for a moment to start, if you are waiting for some sort of signal to tell you that you can begin, you are missing out on what is happening right now.
Stage 3: The Kin
Study after study shows that we’re happier when we’re together, but sometimes it can be hard to find your people, your tribe, your community. Maybe your family and the community you grew up in don’t seem to support the values or passion you hold dear. Schools and work environments are too often designed for competition, not connection and collaboration, breeding a cliquish and alienating environment.
Most of us start off into the Wilderness with just one or a few friends who understand what we’re going through. We have late-night conversations and long walks to make sense of all the confusing things. We become stronger as we accumulate more friends. So the question is: How do we find our people?
There are hundreds of ways to find larger groups of people with shared values and purpose. Here’s a starter list of two quick ways to get you into your community:
- Take the online offline. There are online networks and organizations for almost every interest. It’s great to be involved in these sites and networks, but look for opportunities to take the online networking offline as fast as you can. Go to bar nights, potlucks, film screenings, conferences, community association meetings, or open houses of these networks with the goal of finding just one other simpatico person to come to future events with you.
- Bring it to your town. Look for events that are going on in other towns or cities that attract the people that you want to be hanging out with. Contact the organizer or host organization and sign up to be a local organizer or part of the team that is bringing it to your community. You now have permission to get in touch with as many people as you can and have an organization offering you some support to get started. Whether it is a TEDx event, ChangeCamp, or a Meetup event, there are great opportunities to get to know people.
When you do find true community, it can feel like a homecoming, like the discovery of a new family you didn’t know but was there all along. In these communities, you will find friendship, comradeship, and a kind of unity of purpose. These are the people who will drop everything to help when you’re in need, with whom you can share some laughs and commiseration when choices seem unknown. Your community is made up of those who will help you land a job when you’re broke, partner with you when you want to launch a new company, or at least have a drink with you on a patio.
Before long, if you’re not there already, you’ll end up being a part of multiple communities based around workplaces, conferences, Listservs, and who knows what else. For now, consider that you are already part of a broad movement of Rebuilders, and you aren’t doing it alone. Your community is actually everywhere. There’s a growing acceptance of this trackless track and more and more people that can help you bridge between the different steps on our nonlinear paths.
Stage 4: The Tests
As we find our edge, discover our communities, and accept the path we have begun to walk down, we need to stop and look around. You are figuring out how to live your purpose and living it at the same time. Stage 4 is about finding yourself in those moments when things feel like they are in chaos and learning to take a deep breath and find that personal power inside to get up, get out, and carry on.
These are our moments of truth—a time to conquer our fears and find the power within us to overcome the obstacles we face, regardless of how overwhelming they may feel. At certain moments in all of our lives, we are called to lead.
When the dreams we have for ourselves match the reality of our experience, we’re living our purpose. These moments of leadership aren’t always about being in the spotlight. They aren’t always about presenting to thousands or asking for millions of dollars. They are often quiet moments as we are getting dressed to leave or are making notes in preparation for a call. We know that what we are doing is right, but it feels so uncomfortable that all we want is for someone to come down from above to answer our hesitant wondering about whether we’re doing the right thing with a confident Yes.
Change starts with the simple belief in progress. And to participate in progress, we have to take hold of the millions of choices that come together to create the arrow of change. The world needs your best self. You need your best self right now.
Billy Parish adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, from his book Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money, and Community in a Changing World, co-written with Dev Aujla. Billy is the co-founder of the Energy Action Coalition and the co-founder and president of Solar Mosaic.
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